Mick Jagger is the face of the Band of the Rock Era. Equal parts self-absorbed rock god and kind, generous kid from Dartford, Kent, there are two sides to Jagger. They often show up in the same conversation.
Playwright Phillip Norman creates a sprawling biography to rival Keith Richards autobiography Life. Norman himself is both unabashed fanboy – implying that their are no Rolling Stones without Mick and refuting some of Richards’ assertions in Life – and Jagger’s primary accuser, never sparing him from his naked social climbing from the early 1970’s onward. Taken with Life, however, a very detailed history of the Rolling Stones emerges, one that, along with Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone, is a history that is begging for Charlie Watts to give his take.
Since Ralph Roberts’ wife died, things have not been going well for him. He can’t sleep. Worse, insomnia keeps shaving a few minutes off what little sleep he gets every night. He thinks this is just latent depression, age (he is pushing 70 when we first meet him), or some random ailment that strikes most people from time to time. He tries everything from changing his sleep pattern to long walks to eating honey right out of the comb. This last he decides was a pretty tasty failure.
Yet when his neighbor, Helen Depeneau, shows up at the neighborhood grocery beaten within an inch of her life, Ralph confronts her husband Ed, who seems a bit bewildered that he would actually do such a thing. Ed explains that he’s worried, that bad things are going to happen because of the local abortion clinic, and not just because he thinks abortion is bad. He warns of someone called the Crimson King.
And that’s when the auras begin to appear for Ralph. And the “bald docs.” He soon learns that the neighboring widow, Lois (“Our Lois” the local old men call her, noting she is still quite attractive for a woman in her sixties) also suffers from insomnia. She also sees what Ralph sees. Worse, they soon learn that, while Ed Deepeneau is clearly a few bricks shy of a wall, there really is a Crimson King. And he has Ed dancing on his string.
With Castle Rock (for now) essentially out of the picture (It returns in Dreamcatcher), King moves the action to Derry, the setting for It. The evil is just as pervasive as it was in It, and there are references to that novel and some of the events, which no one ties to Pennywise the Dancing Clown. But It is revealed to be part of something larger. As with his collaboration with Peter Straub, The Talisman, we’re finding the world of The Dark Tower intruding. One little boy draws a picture of a menacing being he calls “the Red King,” and of a ragged-looking cowboy he calls “Roland.” In the same section, Roland makes a cameo, somehow aware something has happened just as the story reaches its climax, but unaware of the events. Other cameos include Mike Hanlon, Derry’s librarian and one of the Losers Club from It and architect Ben Hanscomb, another of the Losers Club.
King is rather down on this novel, calling it stiff, but it may be he simply wasn’t happy with the attempts to incorporate Greek mythology into his wider narrative, that is his fictionalized Maine and his Dark Tower epic. In reality, I think if he had done more, it would have detracted from the story while not using what he did would have actually made the story stiffer and harder to follow. What I found disappointing was the Crimson King himself. Not the character. He is certainly a monster of King-like proportions while most definitely a worthy nemesis for Roland in The Dark Tower, King misses several opportunities to tie the character to its inspiration, the 1969 King Crimson album In the Court of the Crimson King. His character certainly puts the title track in a new light, and there are ways to weave references to it (“The Black Queen chants the funeral march,” “On soft gray mornings, widows cry”) without violating the copyright. And since the song was written by Ian McDonald and Peter Sinfield, I serious doubt Robert Fripp could reasonably object to actually using the song. But since I didn’t write the book, it’s impossible, without comment from King, to say why he did not exploit this more. As I’ve only read the first three books of that series, I may find out that I’m wrong, and that King simply chose to wait for a Dark Tower novel to go that route.
Nonetheless, I do like this first effort to draw The Dark Tower into King’s more real-world stories. At one point, Ralph even knows more about the true nature of the Dark Tower (though not what it’s called) than Roland has yet shown in the Dark Tower books. It also offers some tantalizing hints that the Crimson King and Pennywise may be the same entity, if not similar beings.